Make Public Schools Better with Competition

Published October 1, 1998

John Gardner is a strong advocate of public education, he calls public schools “juvenile warehousing run by an incompetent monopoly.”

Gardner, speaking in a panel discussion at ALEC’s 25th Anniversary Annual Meeting in August, believes the major public policy question facing state legislators is how to give poor children a good education. Freeing low-income, urban communities from the tyranny and incompetence of government education monopolies, he says, is critical for American democracy.

“I believe that poor children can become productive citizens, but too many people on the left think of them as victims,” declared Gardner, involved for thirty years as a left-wing organizer with labor unions, public interest groups, and community organizations. His aim is to make the Milwaukee Public Schools the best public schools by means of choice and competition.

“Competition works. Choice will make the public schools better,” argued Gardner. “We have to dispose of the fatuous argument that choice will destroy them,” he added.

Since 1995, when Wisconsin lawmakers passed expanded school choice and charter legislation, the Milwaukee Public Schools system has responded by raising standards, enhancing parental choice, and demanding greater accountability from public schools.

Among Gardner’s recommendations for lawmakers were the following:

  • Adopt tough graduation requirements for high school and middle school;
  • Establish high school admission standards;
  • Permit more choice within the public school system;
  • Strengthen evaluation and discipline for teachers, principals, and administrators;
  • Compile and publicize school-by-school accountability reports;
  • Close or reconstitute failing schools.

Although the Milwaukee system’s high school admission standards were controversial when first introduced, Gardner noted, they have in fact increased the percentage of minority students in college preparatory schools within the Milwaukee Public School system.